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UK shoppers turn on to online spending as sales rise for fifth month

By Simon Neville
British retailers have notached up their fastest growing quarter on record as parts of the economy rebounded after the worst of lockdown.

Retail sales value notched up a 17.7% rise the three months to the end of September, as shoppers flocked back to some of their favourite high streets.

The Office for National Statistics data showed that September was the fifth consecutive month of growth for how much British shoppers were spending.

However, more than a quarter (27.5%) of these sales are now online, against only 20.1% in February, the ONS said.

“Whilst we might be entering the colder months of the year, this latest set of results suggests the UK retail market is yet to feel the chill,” said Karen Johnson the head of retail and wholesale at Barclays.

But whereas food shopping remains high, as people eat out less, home workers are still having an effect on fuel sales, which are down 8.6% from February, and the number of clothes sold were still down 12.7%.

The fashion stores could miss out as restrictions limit the Christmas party season.

Overall growth in sales volumes – rather the amount spent – was up 5.5% compared with February’s pre-pandemic level, the ONS added.

Food stores’ sales were above February levels by 1.7%. Supermarkets are expected to benefit further from new local restrictions hitting pubs and restaurants hardest.

Fuel sales volumes remained low, down 8.6% from February with reduced travelling, and clothing sales volumes remained 12.7% below pre-pandemic levels.

DIY and home improvement sales continued improving as families updated their homes, the ONS said.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “The retail recovery remains fragile as the industry enters the all-important Christmas period, with November and December typically accounting for over a fifth of annual sales.

“While food and online retail continued to show strong growth, high street shopping has struggled in recent months, with footfall still down by over a third.

“Tighter Government restrictions have taken their toll on fashion and beauty sales, while home office and computing equipment has benefited.”

Richard Lim, chief executive of Retail Economics, said: “Growth in retail sales is beating even the most optimistic expectations.

“Consumers have proved extremely resilient as cancelled holidays, fewer trips out and less commuting have boosted discretionary spending power to the benefit of some parts of the retail sector.

“Christmas 2020 is going to be like no other and we’re also likely to be seeing signs of consumers starting their Christmas shopping earlier.

“It’s not hard to imagine scenes of queues outside of shopping centres (limiting shopper numbers), queues outside shops, queues inside shops and frustrated shoppers.”

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